I am supposed to be perpetually offended by myself.
I’m a thirty-something white woman, who grew up in the suburbs consuming the worst products pop culture had to offer: NKOTB. Saved By The Bell. Street Cents (remember Street Cents?). Barbies. 90210. You name it, I was into it.
Then I grew up and, after a million years of school, basically became an anti-capitalist. A miserly-socialist- (if that’s a thing) who still wears camisoles full of holes so I don’t have to spend money – the system is telling me to deploy my credit card in the name of fast fashion! – slash-cultural-anthropologist who now views these once dear products as artifacts to be endlessly analyzed. In the name of better understanding my kind. Or, keeping my job.
White women are the enemy of culture. What we like is mindless, frivolous, dumb. Consumerist, uncritical. We are fickle. We are drawn in by gossip and cat fights, men with bare chests, our comrades perpetually angling for a marriage proposal. My critical distance from these things, facilitated by my many graduate degrees, allows me to coolly proclaim I once enjoyed, but now find fascinating, the objects of my youth, the targets of my desire. But no, I do not enjoy them anymore. Should I briefly fall into the trap of unadulterated joy, I can right things by performing speedy self-analysis. Phew. I thought I felt something. I just let down my critical guard! Back to distanced objectivism, right after these messages.
Well, fuck it, I decided this week. It turns out I really love country music, and yes, I’m a white girl, and ooh I’m from Alberta, how obvious, and well, just, who cares. So I let it crawl in my lap and snuggle in and make me feel something, and basically I did it because it was my birthday and I’m nearly 40, and if I don’t care about my undershirts or frizzy hair, then why do I care if I LOVE COUNTRY MUSIC?
Well, there’s this.
Right, so (to begin a sentence like all guests on CBC Radio – which, by the way, is hip), it’s a little dangerous to love country music right now. A student recently undertook the Toronto bro country fan base as the subculture to study for her essay, and – to paraphrase – she was horrified at the Bay Street types who barely managed to loosen their ties before they got shit-faced in high-end downtown bars while classic artists like Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line played in the background. Let’s keep the money rolling through the white community, yo. Let’s listen to borderline rapey songs while we ply the ladies around us with drinks. Let’s let loose at these mega country festivals on the summer weekends, leaving piles of plastic waste in our wake as homage to how great things used to be, when we suburban folks could do what we pleased without repercussion.
So, there’s that. You say you like country, you run the risk of being, well, that.
Nevertheless, the great proportion of country music – like 80 years’ worth – and country music fans – millions’ worth – does not celebrate this entitled white man assholery so prevalent in bro country right now. The problem is we’re just at a crossroads, perhaps even an impasse, where should we continue on this trajectory, we might end up looking back on bro country as the warning bell for a scary white nationalism.
Pushing aside that very pragmatic reason for distancing myself from my taste, why not investigate some other reasons why I don’t readily admit to it? Just kidding. You thought I was performing self-analysis!
I went to see Dwight Yoakam the other night. I’ve waited twenty years to see the man, and he delivered. Surrounding me at the show, I noticed, were people … like me? All white. Mostly over 35. Being in a room full of white people in Toronto is one of the weirder experiences one can have in life. It’s so noticeable, you feel more conspicuous than you do as a straight girl at a bar on Church Street on a Saturday night. Except everyone is conspicuous, because where did they come from? Like, the country? What else do they do for hobbies? Watch 90210?
Performing self-analysis at the show, because I was watching my alcohol intake and was thus sober enough to be in work mode (notice how smoothly I deploy “thus” in a sentence. Do I ever turn it off?), I wondered, why do I like Dwight Yoakam?
There’s the dance, of course.
And there are the wonky lyrics.
And the very relevant lyrics, depending on one’s station in life.
His general air of mystery – he said all of six sentences to the crowd.
Oh, stop it already. I like him because he makes me feel good. There, I said it. I LOVE COUNTRY MUSIC. I LOVE DWIGHT YOAKAM.
But if we really want to perform Gillian-slash-cultural-analysis here, we could say that Gillian has a tendency to appreciate the sort of country artists who are traditionalists, but not revivalists, those who “instead of evoking a bygone past,” prefer “to evoke a familiar, unchanging present.”
Revivalism is the stuff of (white) people with leisure time, or no sense of the relevance of their own culture. Turning to a past era, a bygone way of life, or something exotic (e.g., made by an artist of a lower economic class) makes one feel good, like they’re tuned into something real. I’m not talking about the revivalist religious movement of the 1700-1800s, though that’s not to say similar analyses don’t apply. That explains why you’re more likely to find white people my age at a string band show, or listening to something under the roots umbrella, than attending a new country performance by a 1980s artist. It is cooler to do that than to listen to something that can’t be referred to as “nostalgic,” in other words, the Top 40 country songs from the late 80s and early 90s.
So I can say to people, “I went to Dwight Yoakam, and it was great.” And they say, “Oh yeah, good for you, who is he?” And I can’t really explain, other than to say he was the bad guy in Panic Room. And they go, oh yeah, right.
But then if I say, “He did a four-song set dedicated to Merle Haggard,” I get the wow response. Because, you know, Merle Haggard was old, and just died, and was “the real thing,” went to jail, etc., etc., a sort of Johnny Cash figure for people who know slightly more than average about country music. They might even know “Silver Wings” or “Mama Tried.” But they probably don’t know “Pocket of a Clown.”
I end up in this weird position of liking something that isn’t cool, and yet my participation in something now not as mainstream as in the 80s, and unknown to most listeners – some of the main determiners of cool – does not yield me any cultural capital. So I think my solution is to say, It’s my birthday, and I like country music. So there.